Farm Musings ARCHIVE . 2022
"It was one of those days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade." -Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
March in New Hampshire. While elsewhere in this vast country, March is a glorious awakening and blooming, here in New Hampshire it evokes a singular response: mud season. It's that time of year when the frost fights to come out of the ground under New Hampshire's dirt roads, rendering many challenging to traverse, if not impassable. Load limit signs are posted around town and panic grips those who forgot that the big truck delivery won't be able to get through until the signs come down. If we're lucky, the warming days come during a dry spell and mud season is no more than a casual "meh." More likely though, warming days are accompanied by rain so that the softening road beds have enough moisture to turn into our own version of the La Brea tar pits. Even better, it thaws then snows on top of the mud, so you face a deceptively frozen looking road that instantly turns into the consistency of melted ice cream as soon as your tires hit it. It becomes a test of skill, bravery and your car's tires each time you come upon a stretch of road with the perfect mix of soft road base and water. Do NOT under any circumstances stop or you will be marooned in muck!
Our own dirt road, though only a quarter of a mile long, has its own entertaining challenges. More than once, I've been forced to abandon my car at one of my neighbor's parking areas and hike through the woods to our house. Thankfully, two years ago the town highway department added a good amount of new road base to the swampy section between us and our neighbor's and regraded it so water mostly drains away. So far, it has held up well. The lower section of our road remains a challenge. Upon turning onto our road, there is a slight hill. At the very top of the hill is a section of unexplained pavement remnants in front of a poorly draining section. The trick is to gun the gas up the hill so you have enough momentum to push through the muck in that top section without accelerating too much until you reach the newer section and can regain traction. We celebrate the day we can pass to and from without testing our mud skimming skills. Only then do we take our cars to the car wash for a well-deserved bath.
March and spring do come slowly here. The adage of "in like a lion, out like a lamb" is often proven correct. Snow can come suddenly and fiercely, only to melt away in a day or two under the ever-strengthening sun. It plays cruel tricks on anyone dreaming of summer breezes by whacking you with bitter winds and sleet followed by a blue, blue sky and warm sun... then frost again the next day. Our chickens are out pecking around in the field next to their winter housing one day and the next trapped inside by 6 inches of snow. The predominant color is brown: brown mud and leaves everywhere, brown dead grasses in the fields, brown sand from the town plows piled up along the road edges. The bleached brown leaves of the beech trees glow eerily in the mostly brown woods. It feels like everything is paused, waiting, bursting with anticipation for the moment that SPRING!!! arrives. By the end of March, milder days come often and the harshness of winter starts to fade. There is still the threat of snow but by now, we know we won't bother shoveling because the sun will melt it soon enough.
All around, if you look closely, there are signs of color and life to come. Daffodil and crocus bulbs tentatively poke their green heads above the soil. A few tender green shoots of grass pop up in the pasture, to be hungrily nipped down by passing deer. Blue birds start appearing at the feeders. Masses of goldfinches swarm the same feeders, little bits of their gold breeding plumage just starting to appear on their heads. We plan the removal of the feeders soon so as to not entice the awakening and hungry bears to come close to the house. Our honeybees survived the winter and are starting to venture out of the hives on warmer days. The sun that turned bluer last fall signaling the end of summer has returned to its warmer color. Inside, seed trays start to sprout under the grow lights – my personal favorite sign of spring.
I feel the anticipation of spring too as there are changes coming on the farm this year. Already, the pace of seed sowing and prep is much slower than in past years. I have to restrain myself from sowing tray after tray of various vegetables now since I will not be at the farmers market this year. The new greenhouse sits in boxes in the carport while I research assembly instructions and videos online. I have to wait until the ground thaws sufficiently in order to dig for the greenhouse base. I'm hopeful it will be up in time to be useful for this year's seedlings but I have part of our old lean-to greenhouse on stand-by just in case. I resist the urge to get into the market garden and catch up on the fall chores left unfinished last year because working the soil now while it's wet will compact it. Chick orders have been placed for new laying hens and meat birds and preparations are underway for their arrival. Blueberry bushes need thinning and planting areas need prepping for the tree and shrub seedlings ordered from the state tree nursery. Lots to do, lots to plan for, lots to look forward to. Soon, mud season will seem like a temporary inconvenience and spring will be upon us. I'm taking a moment to enjoy the transition.
Outside, the snow turned rain is whipping past the windows sideways. A classic New England winter storm, influenced simultaneously by the ocean and the arctic, has moved in to cover us in slop. I still get excited about snowstorms, though it has little to do with whether or not school will be canceled the next day. These days, I can watch winter storms blow from the comfort of the wood-stove warmed living room, wearing my fuzzy socks and toasty fleece. I will have to go outside and tend to the chickens, but the effort put into dressing up and slogging through the wet, icy mess adds to the adventure of the storm.
The new year is here and with it comes the planning, seed ordering and dreaming for what is to come on the farm. Truthfully, I've been thinking about this year since about mid-August of last year, trying to formulate in my head exactly how it would look. I've come to the conclusion that I need to change direction somewhat, in order to return to what I believe was my original intention for this farm when we bought it. Let me explain...
Back in 2015, when I left my corporate job and we purchased this farm, I knew I wanted to sell products – vegetables and fruits, poultry and eggs – as a way to contribute to the network of small neighborhood farms and a diversified food system. I also wanted to expand our reliance on the farm for our own food, creating a more self-sufficient homestead. I created a small market garden, cleaned up the existing blueberry and blackberry plantings, and planted apple and pear trees. Adding poultry was the next logical step, so we built a mobile chicken coop for layers and tried our hand at raising meat chickens. Scott took up beekeeping. I was fortunate to be welcomed as a vendor at the Canterbury Community Farmers Market in 2017. We were on our way!
That first year at the farmers market was a huge challenge as I'd never grown for market before. True to my "all or nothing" nature, I studied all I could get my hands on about small scale market gardening, determined to do better the following year. I listened to tips from friends and customers about booth set-up and product selection. I expanded the garden footprint, enrolled in the Market Gardener's Masterclass taught by JM Fortier and attended many webinars on lean farming. All this led me down a path to become a better market gardener, producing more and more each year, while trying to lean out my production methods to reduce labor and expenses. For the most part, it worked. My booth expanded and filled each year, and customers lined up to buy lots of my produce and eggs. Our CSA program was well received and the subsequent Farm Tab program with delivery was much appreciated. Our pasture-raised chickens and turkeys sold out quickly. However, the colorful vegetables artfully arranged in bright containers week after week belied the reality of what it took to build that display every week for 18 or more weeks. And, to my frustration, many homestead projects remained unrealized. This past year, I reached my limit.
Although I had narrowed down the number and types of vegetables I grew, both for practical and profit reasons, the reality was I still worked seven days a week to grow, weed, harvest and package those vegetables in order to grow enough to keep up with the demand of the market as well as the Canterbury Country Store and Gilmanton's Own. I often felt I fell short of meeting the expectations of all three. My determination and, admittedly, my stubbornness to meet those self-imposed expectations meant I put every bit of energy I had into growing as much of the best possible quality vegetables as I could, at the expense of most other homestead projects on the farm as well as my aching body. Farming is physically difficult, which I knew going in, but the reality is I am not 25 anymore. Age combined with past injuries have made keeping up with the brutal schedule of growing and harvesting a large market garden, mostly alone, difficult. I do not have staff nor could I afford to hire any without growing significantly bigger than I want to. I am driven enough to keep going but I have come to the reluctant conclusion that I need to take a step back before I do permanent damage to myself. Once I accepted that conclusion, I also allowed myself to accept that I had lost focus on the "homestead" portion of this dream that got swallowed up by the need to succeed as a market gardener. Both have led me to the decision to take a step back this year.
So. What happens now? Well, there is still much to be mulled over as the next few months of winter transition to spring but one decision has been made. I will not be a vendor at the Canterbury Community Farmers Market this year. As much as it pains me to give it up - truly, with tears and everything! – I feel it is the right decision for me at this time. I still plan to grow a ridiculously large vegetable garden and it is likely there will be some greens and things popping up at the Canterbury Country Store during the growing season. We will continue to sell eggs at the store and on the farm too as I'm not willing to give up on chickens yet. Scott is committed to his bee yard and honey production, hoping to expand into queen rearing at some point. I remain on the market board and you will see me each week at the market, coordinating the merry band of volunteers who help the vendors set up each week. I plan to work on some of the long-deferred homestead projects, including finally getting a proper greenhouse built in which to start seeds and build my little fantasy patch of English countryside. I hope to write more often with tales of the homestead projects in progress. Mostly, I need to take some time to heal my body. I had carpal tunnel surgery on my left hand in early December which continues to heal well. I've been keeping a physical therapist and a chiropractor busy with my cranky knee and my arthritic and traumatized neck and shoulders. I need to tend to myself with as much care as I tend to this land and reconnect to my dreams for this place. The rest of the details will sort themselves out over time.
To my lovely market customers over the past five years, a heartfelt and HUGE thank you. You have been my motivation and your enthusiasm has kept me going through the heat, rain, too frequent market thunderstorms, insect infestations and crop failures. I am truly honored you chose to buy from our little farm and support our mission to bring good food to our neighbors. Please continue to frequent the farmers market each week as there will be new and exciting vendors to support this year. The CCFMA motto is "It takes a community to feed a community" but this community has fed me in so many ways. For that, I am grateful. We aren't going anywhere, just adjusting our expectations and focus. Please watch for more posts on our social media as well as blogs and changes to our website soon to see what we are up to as the spring months approach.
See you at the market!